Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice, along with Briton Michael Houghton, have won the Nobel Medicine Prize on Monday for their discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, which paved the way for a cure for the once-permanent liver infection known colloquially as "the junkie's disease" for the alarmingly high rates of infection among IV drug users.
All three were honored for their "decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis, a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer in people around the world," the Nobel jury said.
The WHO estimates there are around 70 million Hepatitis C infections globally, and the virus causes around 400,000 deaths per year. Though many of those infected can do years, even decades, without becoming aware of the infection, acute symptoms include jaundice, vomiting and fatigue.
Though the discovery of Hepatitis B netted a Nobel in 1976, the majority of blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained, until the discoveries made by the three men both established the existence of Hep C, and the fact that it was the cause of practically all the unidentified cases of blood-borne hepatitis that wasn't Hep A or Hep B.
In a series of tweets announcing the prize, the committee explained the specific innovations of each scientist.
2020 #NobelPrize laureates Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice made seminal discoveries that led to the identification of a novel virus, Hepatitis C virus. pic.twitter.com/rBRYjX9fA4— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 5, 2020
The methodical studies of transfusion-associated hepatitis by 2020 Medicine Laureate Harvey J. Alter demonstrated that an unknown virus was a common cause of chronic hepatitis.#NobelPrize— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 5, 2020
Michael Houghton – awarded the 2020 #NobelPrize in Physiology or Medicine – used an untested strategy to isolate the genome of the new virus that was named Hepatitis C virus.— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 5, 2020
This year’s Medicine Laureate Charles M. Rice provided the final evidence showing that Hepatitis C virus alone could cause hepatitis.#NobelPrize— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 5, 2020
The trio will share the prize sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million, 950,000 euros).
Of course, while the development for a cure for Hep C was one of the biggest medical breakthroughs of the past decade, some of those cured, amazingly, have gone on to re-infect themselves via sharing of hypodermic needles used to inject narcotics. As the BBC points out, the bulk of those infected with Hep C are homeless, or chronic substance abuses - or belong to otherwise vulnerable populations.